Working with emergent language – inspiration from a year of practice

The aspect that has changed my teaching the most profoundly since I first stumbled over Dogme ELT is the focus on emergent language. My exploring the approach over the last year has not made me a full Dogmetician (Is that the word?), but a strong focus on emergent language has since become one of the cornerstones of my teaching.

For this blog entry I collected some of my favourite activities I use with emergent language. It could serve as a sort of toolbox that should work with ALL levels of learners as the language that is used has emerged from the learners themselves.

To work efficiently with emergent language you have to monitor the students during conversation or writing, take notes quickly and be able to assess and manage your notes to display them on the board for further work. As soon as there is language on the board, the fun starts:

Pick some of the language items on the board and let students use them in context in the following tasks:
– Describe a situation, in which …
– Name a person, who …
– Name a thing, that’s …

or let them find possible collocations drawing collocation trees or playing a little collocation domino.

Let students explore the meaning of the language items by…
– giving a definition (works well with advanced learners),
– finding appropriate translations (works well with monolingual classes).

You could also have them find synonyms/topical vocabulary and then
– cluster,
– organize,
– re-arrange them based on criteria they choose or that is given by you.

Have the students rephrase sentences and then focus on possible differences between the versions given (Which utterance is more polite/convincing/appropriate in a given situation/specific …?)

To retrieve and recycle language that has already been worked on you can…
– create a spontaneous gap filling activity (Just use a sponge!),
– take an L1-translation and let the students translate it back to English.

or revisit the topic/object that was discussed using
– a cartoon/picture about the same topic to be described and discussed
– a short text about the topic to be used in a little dictogloss.
This works well with topical language and has to be prepared for.

All along the teacher can raise awareness of certain language patterns/grammar constructions when he feels is needed.

The key to these exercises is that your board work is reflected by the tasks you give your students. Don’t just show, but let ALL of the students work on the language displayed.

What it looked like in practice
The first picture shows the screen of our ActivBoard when students had to find collocations for the word MEAL. After copying the collocations they came up with I asked them to note down when they last did one of these things – “When did you last go out for/cook a meal?”. Even more language emerged from this activity upon which I could build subsequently.


In the third picture students had to find possible synonyms of the word SAY. I collected their findings on the boards and asked them to re-organize them in a way they found appropriate. They used volume as the criterion of choice (“Which is louder?”) and came up with the column on the right. After that I asked them to make notes of a situation in which somebody would “whisper/murmur/shout/cry/yell/scream” and then tell one of their classmates about it. As a follow-up to this activity I put their attention to the preposition AT which is used with some of the words.


The last example shows the screen of our interactive whiteboard from a lesson in which we talked about health and obesity. One of the students came up with a suggestion he would make to an obese friend: “Go to the gym more often.” I asked the other students what the thought about it and they told me it didn’t sound polite enough. So the tried to come up with better versions. I copied them on the board and we started to play around with the notion of politeness using different punctuation marks and trying to intonate the sentences in different ways when reading them out loud.20121206-095251.jpg
Now, what do you think about these activities? Do you use similar ones? Or do you use different ones that you find more effective? Please let me know.

2 thoughts on “Working with emergent language – inspiration from a year of practice

  1. Mr. Schenk,

    I am doing the Trinity Diploma in Tesol now in Barcelona. I’ve been having trouble with giving learners practice with emergent language. I’m going to try some of these out tomorrow.


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